Education, Health and Wellbeing Our CommunitiesCommunity, Education Impact Health Research 08 June 2022 14 min read

Untangling fatherhood, one text at a time

by Tim Connell

Whether it’s a request from their child in utero or a reminder to pick up their crying baby, thousands of new fathers are taking advice by text from SMS4dads.

When two people conceive a child they increase their risk of entering a painful, silent chapter of their lives. That includes the father. It is a point of mental health struggle that hides in plain sight in many families, but a burgeoning University of Newcastle-devised service offers dads everything from parenting advice to mental health support through their phones.

Michael with daughter Adrianna
Michael with daughter Adrianna

Behind the cake and song and trimmings of a child’s first birthday, and even the sense of relief a family might expect to arrive with it, can lie a fractious mental health period for one or both parents starting at conception. In this window, 10 to 20 per cent of women will report depressive symptoms at some point. Up to five per cent will experience severe depression, and 0.2 per cent will be diagnosed with a psychotic disorder.

Enough is understood about the mental health of women from conception to the child’s first birthday – called the perinatal period – for researchers and health professionals to recognise what it looks like. New mothers can feel worthless, stop enjoying things, feel dysphoria or anxiety, lose the ability to make decisions, become extremely agitated and, in some cases, experience delusions and psychosis. By now, you don’t need to be an expert to know that the female parent of a small child can go through these symptoms. But what about the male parent?

The murkier picture of new fathers’ mental health is starting to take shape. A recent analysis found that one in 10 men go through depression over the perinatal period, and there are published case reports of psychosis in new dads. Far from depicting fathers as bit players in the real, mother-centred trials of establishing a child in the world, research has identified unique stressors for men. If you are a new dad, it matters if you’re poor, or cut off from essential services, or stuck in a cycle of dysfunction. If you’re a married dad, it even matters how well that’s going.

Dads who have already experienced depression in their lives, whose family incomes are low or whose marriages aren’t strong are especially vulnerable to more depression, anxiety and psychological stress. When a mother has a mood disorder, the effects trickle down to her infant. The same applies to a father, and some of the impact can be measured. Children whose fathers report symptoms of postnatal depression are three times more likely to exhibit behaviour problems by the time they are old enough for preschool. They are then twice as likely to receive a psychiatric diagnosis by the time they turn seven. Children of fathers diagnosed with severe mental illness, research has found, are at risk of physical and mental harm.

Roy and Steph with baby William
Roy and Steph with their son William

Much of the research into new fathers’ needs is by Associate Professor Richard Fletcher, who leads the Fathers and Families Research Program within the Family Action Centre at the University of Newcastle. He has authored or co-authored seminal studies on fatherhood. Among them are recent articles on male users of depression and anxiety support lines, and studies into supporting the partners of mothers with severe mental illness by text message. This has turned out to be key. The humble short message service (SMS), a ubiquitous part of time spent at home during parenthood, has become a lightning rod for Associate Professor Fletcher’s 30 years of national and international fatherhood research.

The research pokes at tender, uncomfortable areas of parenthood. In a 2019 paper, Associate Professor Fletcher and a team of researchers discuss the feelings of disturbance some men experience when they don’t connect with their children – of their failure to “fall in love with baby immediately”. Men give reasons for this, including their own anxiety, their availability to the child, and the limits to their involvement set by their partners. To Associate Professor Fletcher and his colleagues, the case to do something to help fathers help their children is compelling.

Associate Professor Richard Fletcher
Associate Professor Richard Fletcher

The result is SMS4dads, a support and information service for new fathers. It began as a pilot commissioned by Beyondblue in 2015 involving 520 fathers from across Australia. Soon it expanded to target young Aboriginal men becoming fathers. By 2016 the pilot had attracted funding for Defence personnel and their families, and another Beyondblue offshoot that sent texts to both fathers and mothers. Now, it is an enterprise with staff and partners who cater specifically to Indigenous dads, rural and remote dads, families who experience perinatal depression, and families who experience miscarriage or stillbirth. The service is now used by 10,000 dads. Says Associate Professor Fletcher, SMS4dads was always built for them.

“Because most family and parenting services are aimed at mums, they don’t engage directly with dads or provide specific materials and resources for them,” Associate Professor Fletcher says.

The scope of SMS4dads stretches across New South Wales and beyond, with thousands of users from Newcastle and the greater Hunter, Central and Mid North coastal cities like Gosford and Coffs Harbour, Orange in the Central Tablelands, and major centres in the state’s north such as Tamworth and Gunnedah. Its tech-based delivery subdues the tyranny of distance and borders. Dads from Tasmania to Queensland have access to equally relevant advice.

It is a tool, its designers are quick to point out, that doesn’t ask participants to declare their gender. The point is not to provide a construct of who is a father, but to provide help to whoever has stepped into the role.

“Anyone who identifies as a dad can enrol,” Associate Professor Fletcher says.

“We have had feedback from same-sex couples who found the message helpful.”

Among the endless books and classes of impending fatherhood, SMS4dads has become a ritual. First you enrol. Dads enter their baby’s due date. If their partner is more than 12 weeks pregnant or their baby is younger than six months, they join by filling in a survey. From then on, their phone quivers with three messages a week.

Rafael and family
Rafael Corpuz with his wife and son

Rafael Corpuz, 43, lives with his wife and their one-year-old son Lachlan in Goondi, Queensland. It is a town of about 5,000 people on the state’s far northern Cassowary Coast. Lachlan arrived slightly later in life than the couple expected, says Rafael.

“It’s been really wonderful. We’ve been waiting to have one for many years, and it was granted,” Rafael says.

“Considering that we are in advanced age – this year I’ll be turning 44, and my wife gave birth to our son last year at the age of 39 – we’re pretty lucky.”

In the course of his research before Lachlan was born, Rafael found the details of SMS4dads. He registered. Instantly, his phone became a portal to links, information and reassurances that gave his unborn son a voice.

“Although it is noisy in here I will be able to hear your voice from about 20 weeks,” read one SMS, a proxy for Lachlan in utero.

“Try telling me about the things we will do together.”

Rafael knew these were not the actual words of his child. But the framing of the research-driven advice as being from Lachlan had a soothing effect on the soon-to-be dad as he navigated the family’s stressful move interstate from NSW, and pondered how their lives would change.

The texts adjust once the baby is born, asking dads how well they are coping with crying, whether they are gaining weight in the often sedentary first year, and even whether they are taking their child out for a walk to give their partner a break.

Rafael talks about Lachlan’s ability “to erase my worries” about work or whatever else might be going on. But as another gauge for dads’ mental health, SMS4dads includes a mood tracker. It generates an interactive text that simply asks, “How’s it going?” to coincide with a probable spike in the baby’s crying, sleep deprivation, as wells as fathers’ questions of regaining intimacy with their partner and balancing work and family.

"SMS4dads can stop dads being isolated. It helps the team of dad and mum be more understanding of one another’s needs and supports them to be better parents.”

As more dads use the service, SMS4dads has become part of the furniture in one of the most polarising corners of public opinion: parenting. Not all the reviews are friendly. One criticism is that reminding dads to be active, supportive partners by text is setting the bar too low, that any decent father should be doing those things anyway. Furthermore, goes the criticism, these lessons should be absorbed from books, not 180 characters at a time.

But those behind the service argue that a swipe at fathers isn’t the answer, least of all for their partners and children. Like it or not, the research shows that a growing number of young men prefer texting to talking. It is a proven path into men’s lives in 2022.

“Dads don’t want to be on the sideline, they want to be involved as much as they can,” Associate Professor Fletcher says.

“But they’re often flat out in the lead-up to the birth and then likely to rush back to work after a couple of weeks of leave. SMS4dads can stop dads being isolated. It helps the team of dad and mum be more understanding of one another’s needs and supports them to be better parents.”

For Raphael Corpuz, the anticipation of Lachlan’s birth was a source of anxiety. The thought of finding himself suddenly unemployed, somehow, was another. But no matter what happens in his day, he says he is comforted by the knowledge that he can always be a good dad.

“When I’m feeling down about my work, stuff like that, I can feel some disappointment,” Rafael says. “But then I come home and I just see my child smiling at me I think my world’s getting better.”

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08 June 2022
14 minute read